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ADVICE! For COMMENTERS: Super-Ultra-Mega Language Round-Up Edition

You know what, you guys? I just lied to you. Because this special edition of ADVICE! For COMMENTERS actually… does not contain a whole lot of advice. Instead, it is devoted to how wacky and divergent the response to “Inappropriate Language” has been.  (Annnnnnnd, Sexist Beatdown may or may not be about this same deal, SPOILER, this week Tiger Beatdown is a single-issue blog.) There are conflicting thoughts on this issue, as it turns out! Here, we examine three fairly critical – and honestly, expected – responses, and I cover bits of thought  and context that inevitably get left out of even the most comically and overwhelmingly long blog posts.

Let’s examine, shall we?

#1: The Problem With Gay People Is, Sometimes Some Of Them Get Offended By Me Saying Stuff About Gay People

I generally agree with this sentiment, but you seemed to totally ignore the original paradigm shift of Gay meaning Happy to Gay meaning Homosexual. It IS entirely possible for that shift to happen, and I think that people who want to be treated equal and get that shift to happen need to also understand that equal is a good and a bad thing.

Equality seems to be glorified as having people treat you well, when in actuality equality is people treating you with neutrality on the underlying topic that caused the disturbance. If gay people don’t flip out at the use of the term, the shift is more likely to happen.

Now, retard I understand as people with mental disabilities can’t defend themselves generally, but I personally have no real contact with a mentally disabled person so I’ve yet to bother censoring myself in using retard as something stupid. I’m still going to so lower class people against the health care reform are retards.

Okay, serious thing: obviously whether or not you use certain words has a lot to do with your social context and who’s around you and what understandings you have with each other. Like, not for a minute do I want to suggest that every single gay person in the entire world got together and handed out a memo that said “that’s so gay” is super-offensive and you can’t use it any more. Because that is ridonkulous, and makes gay people sound like they share a super-organized Borg mind. Of course different people are going to have different feelings about the word, and there’s no one concrete program of Correct and Non-Offensive Word Usage that always applies in every circumstance. Some people might be offended if you took special care not to use the word.

Our usage of words is, of course, affected by our history. I use “crazy,” in part because I’ve had some feedback to the effect that consciously not using it is infantilizing and condescending, and avoiding the word as if it were poison makes it way more powerful and damaging than it has to be, more powerful and damaging, in fact, than using it without being scared of what it might do. IF NOBODY SAYS THE C-WORD, WE CAN PRETEND NOTHING IS GOING ON! Yeah, but no. Another example: my dudefriend’s mom happened to be a lesbian, and occasionally he’ll use the word “dykes” in this really casual tone, which shocked and startled me, until I figured out that the casual and affectionate use of the word was probably part of how he grew up, and a big part of his experience with the word itself. As opposed to, like, my experience of the word “dykes,” which was only ever said in a hateful, malicious tone of voice, and even “lesbians” was said in this very careful notice-how-I’m-not-saying-”dykes” tone. His relationship to the word is different from mine, so his usage differs, and one thing I’m not going to do is legislate his usage, because that would be super-stupid. I’ll let other people legislate mine, to a certain degree, in interpersonal situations, because that is just part of respecting people: for example, I sometimes use the word “queer” to mean GLBTQI folks, because it is my impression that it is the most inclusive word and one which has been substantially reclaimed and put into circulation as a positive, and also because people make a scrunchy face sometimes when you rattle off all the initials and there’s always a chance you might miss one, but when a gay co-worker heard me use it, he was like, “um, ‘gay,’ please. Or the initials.” And, like: that’s cool! Your call, Mister! You just apologize, maybe explain a bit if you can do it without being defensive or making a big OH MY GOD I USED THE WRONG WORD COMFORT AND FORGIVE ME MR. GAY MAN, SPEAK NO ILL OF ME TO YOUR BORG MIND drama out of it, and move on with the thing that you know isn’t going to hurt the person you’re talking to. Language is, among other things, something that gets worked out socially. So, like: just be cool, obey the basic rules of politeness, and you should be fine! All right?

I do avoid saying some things even when I know no-one in my surroundings will be personally offended by them. People might have zero issue with me calling another lady a “cunt” or saying I got raped by X, Y, or Z unpleasant life event, but I’m still not going to say it. Because ultimately, when I choose not to use a word, it’s because I find it offensive. Me. It sounds offensive, coming out of my mouth; I do it for myself. I can’t make anyone else’s choices for them, and really, when I choose not to use a word, people tend not to notice, because I don’t make it into a big production: I just don’t use it. It’s not a big deal. But, oddly, saying why you do it gets more negative feedback than actually doing it. I can’t make you say or not say anything, people, jokes about Official Tiger Beatdown Programs aside. All I can do is maybe disagree. And, honestly, if I tell you that I disagree with you, and you are not an Internet stranger on my blog comment section, odds are that I know you well enough to care about your feelings during the disagreement: the very worst thing that would happen, if we had a drink and you said something I didn’t like, is that I would say, “I don’t really feel that way,” and maybe have a conversation with you if that seemed like an option. If the thought of a 5’4 brunette woman in a cardigan saying the words “I disagree” is genuinely scary or hurtful or offensive to you, maybe you need to think twice about your positions in regard to the overly sensitive. Just saying.

Which is not really what this commenter’s argument boils down to, which is why it probably doesn’t deserve a thought-out response. Really it’s just the same old, “not my bad words! My precious, precious bad words! You can take my life, but you can never take: MY FREEEEEDOOOMMMMMMM.” To not find a synonym, apparently, because if you care so much about words you would think that you’d know more of them and be able to replace them in relatively innovative ways that don’t dull or distort what you are saying.

#2: Let’s Just Get Rid of ALL the Words!

I’m a recent convert to not using pejorative language myself, and it’s hard! I really liked this post, and you are so right that appearing to do the right thing just isn’t enough, but I happened to notice that you missed a couple yourself, though. You used dumb and fucked up as pejoratives. Fuck and crazy are the ones I struggle with most myself right now.

Earlier today, I said that this comment made me want to “stab myself in the face,” which I guess was not nice, because the commenter means well and all. But the arguments against using “fuck” (that it construes sex as a violent, unwanted act – so “fuck you” would be a coded rape threat, by this theory, and “fucked up” I guess would be a reference to sex as destroying or damaging someone) just strike me as, you know, WRONG, because “fuck” means a lot of different things in different contexts, many of those things non-sexual, and I thought I had written this very careful thing about how we should pay attention to how people use words, rather than going by some prescriptivist definition of them even when that is not how they are actually being employed. But, for the record: I’ve thought about “fuck,” I’ve read the arguments for and against “fuck,” and you guys, I am KEEPING “FUCK.” I am a girl who likes to swear, and that is a good swear, and I don’t think its meanings are sexual by default, so I am keeping it. Also, “douche.” Remember when “douche” was a feminist controversy? Ha, yeah. That was a silly time in all our lives.

“Dumb” is trickier; I’m processing a discussion about that, actually, right now. My original thought was that “dumb” as in “unable to speak” and “dumb” as in “stupid” are homonyms, in that the conflation of muteness and lack of intelligence is outdated and disproven, and that the vast majority of people don’t use “dumb” to mean “stupid” with any thought of or recognition of its history in disability language (as opposed to “retarded,” which is kind of inextricably linked still), and also “dumb” as a descriptor of muteness is out of date itself. But someone pointed out that people do still use “dumb” to mean “mute,” in her experience, and people do still confuse muteness with lack of intelligence, albeit because they are jackasses, and that maybe you need to actually check in with mute people to see how they feel about the word before you assume that you own it because you are Lord God Almighty Explainer and you know exactly what people ought or ought not to be hurt by. (FREEEEEEDOMMMMMMM to not find a synonym, again.) Which seems like common sense! Again, listening to people affected by stuff seems more reasonable than assuming I know how everyone ought to be affected! And yet, even considering the fact that I was wrong about the usage of it as “mute” having died out completely, and with full respect for the fact that using “dumb” to mean “mute” is hurtful, I do think “dumb” as in mute and “dumb” as in stupid have undergone substantial distancing, to the point that they are homonyms; so. I’m tabling the discussion until I can get a better grip on it.

I guess the thing is, my argument in the original post looks like some arguments I disagree with on the side of free pejorative use, and it also looks like some arguments I disagree with in favor of language limitation, so obviously people are going to respond to it as if it is both arguments. Oh, well!

#3: Man Hater! MAN HATERRRRRRRR!

While I found this post to be very insightful, and I enjoyed reading it, I still couldn’t help but be slightly offended by her blatant hatred for men and their apparent combined view of women as inferior, unless of course the man is gay, in which case he is conveniently on her side because he has been the victim of the thoughtless use of words.

Yes, Palin is retarded, and I’m sorry if someone is offended by my saying that, but when I refer to a medical diagnosis, I say”mentally handicapped” or “downs syndrome” because I am aware that the word retarded is frequently used in our society with a negative connotation toward people who do stupid things, but rather than attack the people who are going along with the rest of society, it makes more sense to me to just take the path of least resistance…

This goes on for several hundred words, you guys. Do you have the energy for that? I don’t have the energy for that. But let’s just skip to the heart of it, which is:

While the author had a lot to say about people being offensive, she seems to think that it does not matter if she offends men.

You know, I really DON’T care, sometimes! Except for all the times when I kind of do. It depends on the man, I guess? For example: this guy. I don’t really care that I have offended him! Surprising, right? In fact, this is what I am working toward, my beautiful utopian cuddle-party future: a place where we can all feel free to insult and offend each other based on who we are, and not what we are. A place in which I have the complete freedom to call upon each and every one of my fellow citizens to take a lick on some Chipotle-BBQ-flavored extra-crunchy My Asshole, should they happen to annoy me for completely fair and non-prejudicial reasons, and they have the freedom to respond in kind. Is that not a dream worth working for? I ask you: is it not?

25 Comments

  1. jfruh wrote:

    I think “douche” is an awesome word to use as a slur! I guess the original frission of power the word had was because douches involve lady bits and therefore GROSS. But, I mean, aren’t douches in and of themselves terrible things, because they’re predicated on the idea that vaginas are dirty and must be cleansed with fire (or chemicals), and therefore “douche” is good thing to call someone if you want a synonym for “something bad,” particulary if that someone is a misogynist? And the best part is that no actual physical vagina-”cleaning” douche will object to this usage, because, you know, it’s a piece of plastic.

    Also, “douchenozzle” is a funny word! (Do douches even have nozzles?)

    Also also, there is real actual U.S. case law about the varying sexual and nonsexual uses of the word “fuck.” Like, saying to a coworker “I’d like to fuck you” is actionable harassment, but saying “Aw, fuck” isn’t! Similarly, when it comes to rating movies, the MPAA treats “fuck” differently as to whether you’re saying “Fuck you!” or “I’d like to fuck you.”

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Quixotess wrote:

    “I guess the thing is, my argument in the original post looks like some arguments I disagree with on the side of free pejorative use, and it also looks like some arguments I disagree with in favor of language limitation, so obviously people are going to respond to it as if it is both arguments. Oh, well!”

    Everyone’s somewhere on that spectrum. I guess some people feel like you gotta be exactly where they are or you are a CENSOROR ^W BIGOT ^W CRYBABY ^W BETRAYER ^W MEANIE.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  3. smadin wrote:
    While the author had a lot to say about people being offensive, she seems to think that it does not matter if she offends men.

    You know, I really DON’T care, sometimes!

    Right: I would argue that that’s perfectly appropriate, because that dude’s offendedness doesn’t actually signify your having done him any real harm.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Kathleen wrote:

    Ah, yes, the “man hater” dude. He makes the logical leap from “it is deeply uncool to use comparisons to diverse-in-and-of-themselves-categories-of-folks (women, gay people, developmentally disabled people, people with mental illness, people of color) as INHERENTLY insulting”

    to

    “it is not cool to insult anyone ever”

    which, like, if one is aspiring to be St. Francis of Assisi, point.

    But, if one is a politically-engaged person who thinks some kinds of action merit call-outs and perhaps even insults directed at the actors, well. silly really.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Alicia wrote:

    It’s interesting how “douche” started off feminine and now has become totally masculinized. It was also a word I used to hate, until the new cultural douchebag taxonomy (and Garfunkel and Oates) made it more abstract and less bathroom-hygiene-y.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  6. Adrianna wrote:

    Today at work I actually had a half-hour conversation with four white early-twenties dudes about what kind of language is and isn’t appropriate in the workplace.
    You would be FLOORED by their initial reactions. Like I’d just committed some kind of crazy societal infraction. All of the words were what we’d consider swear words, words you wouldn’t want to use at the dinner table kind of language. Not words you’d normally use at the workplace anyway, but I’m in kinda a blue-collar setting and these dudes needed a little re-adjustment.
    They came around, but it made that little comment about your FREEEDOMMM!! make me laugh out loud.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  7. AJ wrote:

    It’s interesting how “douche” started off feminine and now has become totally masculinized.

    I don’t find it all that weird, considering that it’s an insult towards males, and those often have their basis in applying feminine labels to men (because being associated with womanly things is SO EW), ie “pussy”.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Maggie wrote:

    I agree with you and JFRUH on the “douche” situation – I have always thought comparing someone to an unnecessary chemical product that was marketed as LADIES: YOU REALLY NEED SOME OF THIS was actually VERY VERY ACCURATE when applied to Certain Dudes, and also as a general boo hiss.

    Also fuck – god, where would I be without fuck? I mean, I should probably cut down on my use of it for totally unrelated reasons, those reasons being it wars with “like” for conversational punctuation and that does not speak well for my vocabulary. But I think the fact that it is so well-known a swear really helps, because its context is relatively easy to place in almost all cases.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  9. parallel wrote:

    Great post.
    On the topic of language – I would like to point out something wonderful about English: There are no gender markers.

    Which make trying not to be offensive so complicated. In German for example, every profession is male by default and when talking about a woman in a profession you add the suffix “-in” or “-innen”(plural). When I was in high school I used be to one of the “Schülervertreter”(= student representatives), which is a simple enough thing, right? Only when you’re trying to be accurate here, and consider that both the representatives and the students consist of boys and girls you’d have to say “Schüler und Schülerinnen Verteter und Vertreterinnen” (basically the representatives and the female representatives of the students and the female students) which I think no one in history could ever be bothered to do. Though there were lengthy discussions about it. It was considered to call the council “SchülerINNenvertreterINNen”. But that is a monster of a word and didn’t stick. So the sad lesson learned was that our language is inherently sexist and there is nothing you can do about it without making up words that sound contrived and wrong.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 4:49 am | Permalink
  10. Samantha b. wrote:

    As a mentally ill person, I very much support the use of the term crazy. As it has been explained to me by a psychiatrist, mentally ill people should be called out on their more irrational behaviors. Crazy behavior needs to be acknowledged as such, and to do otherwise is to paint the mentally ill as delicate flowers with zero control over and insight into their own behavior.
    So I tend to think it’s a valuable word.
    Like any that can be conceived as an insult, one would hope that it could be used with intelligence and respect. (I’m going to disagree with Scott here that there are ever circumstances in which it’s right to totally throw out respect for someone who hasn’t themselves shown disrespect for you. There is *always* harm there- once you erode basic respect for humanity there’s really no building it back up in just the right places, i.e. the unprivileged receive it and the privileged don’t. Basic respect for those around you is always something that’s on the table or out the window; there are no halfsies.)

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  11. Kowalski wrote:

    WTF? The word mute is so fucking outdated, I can’t believe anyone is still using it. The correct term is either “speech impaired” or “non-verbal”. Maybe you should check in with “mute” people before writing about us.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  12. MarinaS wrote:

    One wonders; what about when one is part of the group of people who have been affected by the perjorative usage of a particular word, but is in substantial disagreement with prevailing opinions in that group?

    Like, can I say to you “please don’t use the word “douche” around me. Whatever acommodation you, as a woman like myself, have reached with it, it nevertheless offends my sense of bodily integrity, and is just a sneaky way of ew-gross-vagina-shaming without useing ‘cunt’”?

    It can be very restrictive, and slip into “Ban All The Words!” category, but I do try to just not use as many potentially offensive words as is practical for me to not use. Basically, if I’ve read a convincing argument why a certain word should be expunged from polite discourse, even if I’ve read dissenting arguments that are equally compelling, I’ll have a sporting try at getting rid of it. I flatter myself that I am sufficiently articulate that so far this has not constrained my conversation too much (except for making me sound like a pompous ass a little sometimes).

    Notable utter failures to shed so far include “brain-storming”. Also, they can pry “fuck” from my cold, dead lips.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink
  13. Maud wrote:

    This goes on for several hundred words, you guys. Do you have the energy for that?

    I do not. I tried to read that guy’s comment. My eyeballs went on strike. We are old, they said, and life is hard. Do not ask this of us.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  14. Sady wrote:

    @Kowalski: Ok!

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  15. abby jean wrote:

    just a note that i very much appreciate you acknowledging and considering the responses re dumb/mute. these are particularly tangled issues – and i consider myself someone trying to get up to speed on all of this as well – and i’m glad to see you’re taking the discussion as “here are some things you may not have considered” instead of “you’re wrong wrong wrong shut up,” which is definitely the spirit in which the info was offered.

    @kowalski – i also appreciate the feedback on “mute,” which seemed to be the preferred term in my office. definitely something on which i need to seek info/feedback from speech-impaired people.

    anyway, thanks for modeling such a great response to conflicting views/ideas. it’s something i struggle with myself, so i especially admire and respect your approach.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  16. abby jean wrote:

    ack – to clarify my initial comment, i meant that the info was offered in the spirit of “here’s things may not have considered” not “shut up” which i totally failed to make clear. i write good.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  17. Sady wrote:

    @MarinaS: I think that it’s the difference between having a drink with someone and witnessing someone’s public speech – on TV or in a blog post or in a book or whatever – that matters in this case. Of course, if you and I were hanging out, and you said “‘douche’ kind of makes me feel icky,” that would be cool. I have a friend who can’t handle “cunt” as slang for a person’s junk, so I don’t use it around her, and for some reason I find “pussy” gross (not in a political way: I just don’t like the sound of it, the hissing you have to do to get through the word and then the diminutive ending, and this may have something to do with how gross some dudes sound when they try to say it in a sexy way: it either sounds like baby-talk or they end up getting weirdly Southern for a moment and saying “puss-eh,” BUT ANYWAY). So when we talk about the nether regions – and I GUESS WE DO, because I am just now realizing we have in fact had these conversations a few times – we just use the most ridonkulous outdated terms we can imagine (for example: “the nether regions”) and avoid the whole cunt/pussy/oh-dear-Lord-do-not-say-”vajayjay” problem altogether. This is the “language gets worked out socially” thing I talked about.

    But in my public speech, for example on this blog, where I really don’t know who’s listening and anyone could be, I have no way to predict who’s going to be offended by what, so I stick with the terms that (a) I know to have wide currency, and (b) I like. If I end up not knowing what the most correct or current usage is – see above – I’m open for correction, of course, but if I had to write every single thing I write so that there is ZERO chance of ANYONE EVER having an issue with a word I’ve used, I’d just degenerate into incoherence or this really ponderous Germanic style that no-one would enjoy reading. I mean, my mother has zero issue with some of the most wacky stuff I’ve written or believed, but she scolded me for using the word “shit” on Twitter once. I can’t write for everybody and everybody’s mom AND my mom; I can only make the choices that make sense to me at the time, and think about the choices I make. Does that make sense?

    Also, I think you’d have to struggle to include Tiger Beatdown under the umbrella of “polite discourse.”

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  18. Sady wrote:

    @abby jean: Oh, no worries! Your response was really insightful, thanks for putting it out there.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  19. TheOtherMaggie wrote:

    Ooh, you didn’t mention the “How is that worse than saying X?” argument. I get that a lot when I call out my male friends for their rape jokes. They’re playing a video game, and they go, “Oh man, we are totally getting raped.” And I say, “Can we please not have rape jokes? I’m a little touchy about them.” And they say, “How is that worse than if we said we were getting killed? At least if you’re raped you live through it.”

    Besides the obvious horrible thing, this also ignores the fact that if your party is getting wiped in Trial of the Crusader, YOU ARE IN FACT BEING KILLED. It is an accurate description.

    And then I have to point out that if one is murdered, one generally isn’t around to be triggered by murder jokes afterward (family and friends notwithstanding).

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  20. And they say, “How is that worse than if we said we were getting killed? At least if you’re raped you live through it.”

    Right, because something has to be the Worst Thing That Ever Happened in order to be inappropriate or triggering. *headdesk*

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  21. MarinaS wrote:

    @Sady yes what you say does make perfect sense. And it helped clarify something for me, in that I guess I’m not sure where blogging and commenting falls between the social and the public (for me, not in absolute this-is-how-it-should-be terms).

    I think commenting is social while bloggins is public; and that creates all kinds of interesting tensions. Like, on my own blog, while I don’t try to please my mom, I do work hard to have zero tolerance for discriminatory speech. But as a commenter, I’m like a person in a socail situation – circumspect and careful at first, then gradually letting my hair down as I feel comfortable (and becoming more open to comments such as “that makes me feel icky” from fellow commenters).

    Where I’ve seen trainwrecks before is when this public/private thing collides on a blog with a lot of loyal old time followers. The blogger or a fellow commenter says soemthingthat raises objections, and this unclear boundary between the social and the public makes eveyone talk at cross purposes to each other about the reasons why it was wrong and it’s a hatefest. Yes, I’m thinking about “Cuntalinagate” here… :/

    Anyway – thanks for jogging my brain in that interesting direction. And for the record I find your blog exquisitely polite.

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink
  22. Taybeh Chaser wrote:

    Sady, you’re absolutely right about the word “pussy”. No one has ever explained so well the reasons why I hate it.

    I also can’t stand “panties”, for some of the same reasons. It sounds way too babyish.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  23. I am a big proponent of the words “doucehbag” and “douchenozzle” because early “douches” had both, and they did double duty as enema dispensers, and everyone’s got an asshole, right?

    Besides, they’re just fun to say.

    Douche! Douche! Douche!!!

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  24. Yes, emotionally I’m still 12 sometimes.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  25. Farore wrote:

    Echoing Taybeh Chaser, here; I’ve never been able to fully explain why I am so repulsed by the word “pussy”, but that is exactly why. Also, I realized that my hate for it really super duper intensified right around the time I was dating a (gross for many reasons) guy who was one of those Some Dudes Who Try To Say It In A Sexy Way and it just sounded like babytalk (AND ‘puss-eh’ because he was from Texas, hurr).

    So uhm yes thank you very much Sadykins!! <3

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink